A spacecraft, named InSight, deployed three years ago to Mars, has been tested in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford. Scientists hope that it will be able to detect the landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on the surface of Earth’s neighbouring planet next month, helping scientists to better understand the interior structure of Mars.

In an upcoming NASA mission, the Perseverance Rover will land on Mars, entering “the Martian atmosphere at enormous speeds, accompanied by a sonic boom created by its rapid deceleration”, as explained by Ben Fernando to the Oxford Science Blog. Fernando, a physicist at the University of Oxford and a member of the InSight team, said that “the arrival of the Perseverance Rover potentially offers the first opportunity to detect a known, planned landing of a foreign body on the surface of the planet”. Fernando continued: “this is an incredibly exciting experiment”, adding that it will be “the first time that this has ever been tried on another planet”.

While InSight’s sensors may not be sensitive enough to detect the landing of the Rover’s main body, a paper by the InSight team explains that a sonic boom and seismic waves created by the Rover’s two stabilising balance masses – which will “hit the ground at hypersonic speeds” as reported in the Oxford Science Blog – could be detected by the InSight spacecraft.

Fernando told The Blue: “This is a really exciting Oxford-led experiment and we’re all really looking forward to finding out if InSight has detected the landing or not! Do check back in afterward to find out more about what we happened”.

The InSight probe was sent to Mars in November 2018, landing in the Elysium Planitia region, being the first outer space robotic explorer to have dug this deep into the planet. It also has the key ability to detect seismic activity from marsquakes, and potentially from impact events. 

While no impact events have been detected yet, they are particularly useful for furthering our understanding of the red planet. Fernando told Oxford Science Blog that “impact events are of particular interest because they can be constrained in timing and location from pictures taken by orbiting satellites, and thus used to ‘calibrate’ seismic measurements”. The Oxford Science Blog explained that this “will enable us exactly to constrain the speed at which seismic waves propagate between Perseverance and InSight”, giving pioneering insights into Mars’ structure.

This mission does present certain challenges, however. While InSight’s seismometers should be capable of detecting Perseverance’s landing, potential background noise created by Mars’ weather and the large distance between the Rover’s landing site and InSight’s location could make this difficult. This is especially as the distance is estimated to be around 3500 kilometres, compared to “around the same distance as from London to Cairo” by Fernando. Despite this, the Oxford team still believe in the potential for detection of the seismic activity from the entry, descent, and/or landing of the Rover by InSight. The team’s paper says that this would be of “enormous scientific value”.

Other than its potential role in allowing us to “hear” the landing of a spacecraft on Mars for the first time, InSight has been studying the planet’s geology and attempting to burrow into the surface to investigate Mars’ internal temperature. While the latter mission has been unsuccessful due to the properties of the soil preventing the friction required to hammer into the soil to a sufficient depth, as reported by NASA, there is still the promise of this new mission to further our understanding of Mars. 

According to the InSight team’s paper, the landing is expected to take place at approximately 20:00 GMT on 18 February. So, we will find out soon the extent to which the InSight spacecraft will facilitate advancements in our knowledge of the red planet.

For a more detailed description of the mission by Ben Fernando, see Seismology Oxford’s YouTube video or their Oxford Science Blog post. Alternatively, check out this Instagram film.

Image credit: ColiN00B on Pixabay

Alice Gowland (she/her) is the current Science and Technology Editor for The Oxford Blue, and a Third Year Experimental Psychology student at Magdalen College. She is a cheerleader, peer supporter, and proud Northerner, with a passion for discussing topics within all spheres of science. To get in touch with her, please email [email protected]